Welcome to the Big Ten's big stage, Richard Pitino.
The son of the coaching legend (and defending national champion) has been doing a silently terrific job in his first season as the head man of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. But after Thursday night's big 63-53 upset of Ohio State in the Twin Cities, Pitino's Gophers are silent no more.
“It was certainly a great win for us," Pitino said after the game. "I thought we played tremendous defense. ... It was big for our basketball players. It was a great win. We’ve got to certainly learn from our mistakes and continue to get better.”
The Gophers have continued to get better, and that's what won't keep Pitino and his team under the radar for long. The 2-2 conference record heading into Thursday might have fooled some, but Minnesota has looked impressive all season. The team's only two losses in non-conference play came in Maui, including one to Syracuse, the current No. 2 team in the country. And the two Big Ten losses, to Michigan and in overtime to Michigan State, have come by a total of 11 points.
After coming so close to an upset for the ages at the Breslin Center, forcing the Spartans into overtime before losing, closing out this upset over Ohio State was a big step for the Gophers.
“We have had some close games against Big Ten teams this year," junior guard DeAndre Mathieu said. "We talked to each other during the halftime that we are going to finish it this time. This time we had to finish it to let Michigan know that we can finish the game really good too.”
The big guys showed up for the Gophers on Thursday, while Ohio State's big names went silent. Elliott Eliason scored 12 points and hauled in 13 rebounds while adding a pair of blocks. It was his sixth double-double of the season, his third in Big Ten play. He ranks second in the league in rebounding. Mathieu and Andre Hollins, who ranks 11th in the conference in scoring, also scored in double figures.
Minnesota might not rank near the top of many statistical categories — though the Gophers lead the conference in both free-throw percentage and steals, for what it's worth — but Pitino has built a very impressive resume in just several months at the helm. It's the same thing he did in his lone season in charge at Florida International, coming within a basket of taking the Golden Panthers to the NCAA tournament.
He's now looking to do the same and more with the Gophers.
Minnesota is in a brutal stretch of the schedule. After the near-win at Michigan State and the upset of Ohio State in the Twin Cities, games at Iowa and vs. Wisconsin remain. But if the Hawkeyes and Badgers have been watching, the Gophers are squarely on their radar.
"We lost one on the road, and we needed a bounce back as a team," Eliason said. "You know they were really hungry as they came off from two tough losses as well. So we were prepared to play with these hungry and talented players.”